It is difficult to overstate the extent to which the Iranian regime has mismanaged its own outbreak of the novel coronavirus. The seriousness of the problem goes well beyond the official estimates of the total number of infections and deaths. Those figures are sufficiently dire to make the Islamic Republic far and away the worst outbreak location in the Middle East.
But independent estimates suggest that Iran’s situation could actually be the worst in the world. And even a cursory understanding of those figures should make it clear that granting sanctions relief to Tehran would do little to alleviate the crisis.
This is because the problem doesn’t stem from Tehran’s global isolation or from a lack of access to essential medical resources. In fact, there has never been such a lack of access.
Iranian officials repeatedly have attempted to claim that the United States is cruelly and deliberately barring Iranians from receiving life-saving medical aid. But how could this be, when the White House reached out to Iran in order to offer such aid directly?
And how can Iran’s narrative of victimization be taken seriously when Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei explicitly rejected the U.S. offer, then attempted to justify his decision with a series of frankly insane conspiracy theories?
It might have been possible to excuse this as sincere but overwrought skepticism. But the American offer was not the only one to be rejected by the Iranian regime.
Doctors Without Borders separately made arrangements to build a makeshift hospital and provide medical personnel to assist in the treatment of COVID-19 patients. These plans were canceled on the Iranian side, and the Health Ministry issued public statements insisting that the aid was not needed and that Iranian authorities were managing the crisis perfectly well on their own.
President Hassan Rouhani reframed this narrative with the specific intention of antagonizing the West, stating that Iran was doing much better than the United States and its allies. Rouhani illustrated the point with reference to empty beds in intensive care units, praising the capacity and effectiveness of his country’s health care system. But he did so as official estimates for the number of active cases climbed into the tens of thousands.
At the start of last week, Tehran acknowledged that the country was fast approaching 4,000 coronavirus-related fatalities. But the leading Iranian opposition movement, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, estimates that the actual death toll is roughly five times that number.
In the first week of March, the NCRI determined from hospital admission records and the disease’s likely mortality rate that as many as 1 million Iranians had already contracted it. Given the virtual absence of government countermeasures and the fact that more than 18,000 people have reportedly died since the outbreak began, it is reasonable to conclude that the number of cases has now doubled.
U.S. sanctions cannot explain a catastrophe of this magnitude. The problem has its roots in the Iranian regime’s initial response, and it has been fed since the end of January by a combination of misplaced priorities, inhumane ideology, administrative incompetence, and corruption. At least some of these problems are evident in the gap between when the first cases were recorded in the Islamic Republic and when the first ones were publicly acknowledged by the regime.
The NCRI recently uncovered documents that showed suspected COVID-19 sufferers had arrived from China no later than the end of January. Yet Tehran effectively denied this until February 19.
In the meantime, authorities organized massive celebrations of the anniversary of the 1979 revolution. Not only that, but they also utilized time-tested strategies for compelling Iranians to gather together where they could be used as props for state propaganda that claimed extensive public support for the theocratic system.
The carefully stage-managed celebrations were especially important this year, as they came in the wake of a nationwide anti-government uprising in November, as well as student protests that spanned at least a dozen provinces in January. In fact, a false symbol of support was so important to the regime that authorities evidently had no qualms about deliberately making their subjects more vulnerable to a looming pandemic.
In the run-up to their disclosure on February 19, it became clear that they were willing to do it all over again. Iran’s parliamentary elections were scheduled for two days later, and officials breathlessly had been urging the people to participate in the largest possible numbers. There’s little doubt that the regime’s obsession with voter turnout would have enforced an even longer silence about coronavirus if not for the fact that activists and dissidents were organizing a boycott of the polls.
When officials finally announced that COVID-19 had breached Iran’s borders, they did so to create a convenient excuse for the lowest voter turnout in the 41-year history of the Islamic Republic.
Yet all the while, authorities continued to urge mass participation and write off pandemic concerns as part of a foreign plot to shatter Iranian morale. Ironically, the small portion of Iran’s population that supports the regime may have actually been made particularly vulnerable to infection, on at least two occasions.
The rest of the country understands that the regime has no serious interest in protecting them against the viral outbreak, or against much of anything else. Groups like the NCRI have repeatedly explained this for the benefit of the international community, noting along the way that no serious observer of Iranian affairs thinks sanctions relief would change the regime’s relationship with its people.
In reality, it would only allow the regime to spend more of someone else’s money on mismanaging each crisis that rocks the country, while also pursuing its own malign ends, to the detriment of the Iranian people.